After Mollycoddling China Cracks Down on Pharma MNCs…But Why Now?

In tandem with exemplary growth in the healthcare sector, China has started confronting with some consequential hazards in form of serious regulatory violations involving, besides many others, hospitals, pharmaceutical pricing and food and drug safety, which reportedly include contaminated milk powder and rat meat sold as mutton.

A recent report indicates, there are rampant kickbacks at various stages in the healthcare delivery process. For example, hospitals get kickbacks from drug and device companies, and hospital executives give a portion of these kickbacks to their doctors, involving even the pharma MNCs.

While looking back, in 1997, China took its first healthcare reform measures to mend the earlier not so good practices, when medical services used to be considered just as any other commercial product or services in the country. As a result, staggering healthcare expenses made Chinese medical services unaffordable and difficult to access for a vast majority of the local population.

In April 2009, China, a country with over 1.35 billion population, unfolded a blueprint of a new phase of healthcare reform to provide safe, effective, convenient and affordable healthcare services to all its citizens. An incremental budgetary allocation of US$ 124 billion was made for the next three years to achieve this objective.

The core principle of healthcare reform in China:

The core principle of the new phase of Chinese healthcare reform is to provide basic health care as a “public service” to all its citizens, where more government funding and supervision will play a critical role.

This reform process will ensure availability of basic systems of public health, medical services, medical insurance and medicine supply to the entire population of China. It was also announced that priority would be given to the development of grass-root level hospitals in smaller cities and rural China. The general population will be encouraged to use these facilities for better access to affordable healthcare services. However, public non-profit hospitals would continue to remain one of the important providers of medical services in the country.

Medical Insurance and access to affordable medicines:

Chinese government has planned to set up diversified medical insurance systems to provide basic medical coverage to over 90 percent of the country’s population. In tandem, the new healthcare reform measures will ensure better availability of affordable essential medicines at all public hospitals.

Highly lucrative healthcare business destination:

New Chinese healthcare reform process carries an inherent promise of a large additional spending worth billions of US dollars every year catapulting China as one of the most lucrative healthcare markets of the world.

China’s healthcare spending has reportedly been projected to grow from US$ 357 billion in 2011 to US$1 trillion in 2020.

Consequently, this huge investment has started attracting a large number of global companies of various types, sizes and nationality competing for the right size of their respective pies of profits.

In that process, as the media reports highlight, global pharmaceutical players started fast increasing both their top-line revenue and bottom-line profits from the booming Chinese healthcare market.

Pharma MNCs growing bigger, outpacing local industry:

Another report highlighted, “60% of China’s healthcare stimulus money ended up going to non-Chinese multinationals”. Quoting a recent JP Morgan report the article indicated AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer realized over 30 percent growth from their China operations in the early part of 2011.

With the slow down of business in Europe and in the United States, even large global pharmaceutical players like, Bayer, Sanofi, Novartis, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and many more have reportedly invested huge resources for capacity building in sales and distribution channels, local manufacturing and R&D.

Chinese Government woke-up:

Kick starting the reform process and in the face of high level of corruption, Chinese government initiated monitoring the effective management and supervision of healthcare operations of not only the medical institutions, but also the health services, together with basic medical insurance system, in good earnest.

It has been reported, though the public hospitals will receive more government funding and be allowed to charge higher fees for quality treatment, they will not be allowed to make profits through expensive medicines and treatment, which has been a common practice in China.

Violations meted with harsh measures:

Accordingly, with increased vigil in many of these areas since last couple of years, Chinese regulators have started cracking down on the culprits, who are being meted out severe and harsh punishments, consequently.

In 2012, seven public hospital directors were reportedly sent to jails for accepting kickbacks. One corrupt drug regulator was even executed along with two food-company managers involved in a poisoned milk scandal, as the report mentions.

Pharma MNCs targeted for alleged corrupt practices:

As stated above, the new healthcare reform measures include regulation of prices of medicines and medical services, together with strengthening of supervision of health insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies and retailers.

China has now reportedly targeted Multinational Companies (MNCs) for allegedly corrupt practices, including price-fixing, quality issues and consumer rights. This has forced some MNCs to defend their reputations in China where global brands often have a valuable edge over local competitors in terms of public trust.

Recently, in an effort to reduce drug prices, China has initiated probes involving 60 drug manufacturers.

According to a recent report, to make the pricing system for medicines more effective, the regulatory agencies in China are investigating the costs and prices of drug manufacturers including global pharma majors like:

  • GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK)
  • Merck & Co.
  • Novartis AG
  • Baxter International Inc.

The regulators are expected to go through the details of 27 companies for costs and 33 companies for pricing, as per the July 2, 2013 statement posted on China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s (NDRC) Evaluation Center of Drug Pricing.

The report highlights that a possible impetus for the NDRC to probe into pricing and costs of domestic and foreign drug companies was the announcement of China’s National Essential Drugs List in March, which increased the items on the list to 500 from 305.

Clampdown on government spending:

To exercise control on public expenditure towards drugs, the government has also reportedly clamped down on drug spending, placing some foreign drug makers’ products under price controls for the first time.

Since 2011, the Chinese Government has reduced the drug prices four times, including 15 percent reduction earlier in 2013, though the price reduction will be as much as 20 percent for the expensive drugs. At the same time, the government has reduced tax rebates on investments.

Mr. Chen Zhu, Health Minister of China has reportedly expressed that healthcare in China is still too expensive and there is still inadequate control over improper use of drugs in the country.

Another report indicates that Nestlé, Abbott Laboratories and Danone are under investigation in China for “monopolistic” pricing.

Crackdown on bribery and kickbacks:

An article in a similar context mentions that the “Chinese police started an investigation into the Chinese unit of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers of UK – GlaxoSmithKline and Senior executives at the unit are suspected of ‘economic crimes”.

On the same subject, a different news report also indicates, a senior Glaxo finance executive in Shanghai and employees in Beijing were detained as part of a corruption investigation.

Recently a Chinese Security Ministry official has reportedly said that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) executives in China have confessed to bribery and tax violations.

The same report quoting the ministry highlighted that the case against GSK involved a large number of staff and a huge sum of money over an extended period of time, with bribes offered to Chinese government officials, medical associations, hospitals and doctors to boost sales and prices. Concerned executives also used fake receipts in unspecified tax law violations.

Interestingly, earlier in 2012, Global CEO of GSK reportedly admitted that the company made “unacceptable” mistakes in “mismarketing” their antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin, which were the subject of a US$ 3 billion settlement with the Justice Department of the United States. At that time the CEO was reported to have said “very sorry” for the incident and “determined that this is never going to happen again.” 

Another very recent news highlights that currently China is investigating at least four pharma MNCs as it widens its probe. Chinese enforcers had suggested that these pharma companies were using the same tactics to boost their businesses in the country.

It is now learnt that anti-trust body of China - State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC)  has also visited  Shanghai office of UCB. 

Happening elsewhere too:

Reports of similar alleged malpractices have started surfacing from elsewhere in the world too. For example, in Denmark, a country known for low incidence of corrupt practices, a Norwegian cardiologist was reportedly charged with taking 2 million kronor, or about US$ 350,000, from Merck and Pfizer, despite the fact, Danish law prohibits doctors from accepting money directly from the drug makers. The concerned doctor allegedly used the cash to buy expensive furniture and salmon-fishing holidays in his home country.

Last year, both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States reportedly charged Pfizer and its subsidiary Wyeth for paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials, doctors and healthcare professionals in Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Serbia during 2001-2007 in violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. They had also set hefty fines on the two to settle the charges.

Conclusion:

To effectively address serious and longer term healthcare related issues of the country, the Chinese Government has already started implementing its new healthcare reform measures earnestly. Possibly to maintain equity, stay on course and uproot corrupt practices, they have now started cracking down on the violators in all seriousness, be they are from within the country or beyond its shores.

So far as the pharma MNCs are concerned, such harsh measures are being taken for alleged malpractices probably for the first time ever of this scale and that too with full media glare.

All these measures coupled with pricing pressure and gradual rise of local Chinese players, would make the Chinese market increasingly challenging to  pharma MNCs.

Some global players have already started feeling the scorching heat of tough Chinese measures. But China is too powerful a country and too lucrative a market for any entity to flex its muscle to stall the current juggernaut, at least, till the ‘Dragon’  achieves its objective of bringing down public healthcare expenditure to its expectations…Or is there more to the problem than meets the eye?

Thus, the key question emerges: 

Why has China, after mollycoddling the pharma MNCs for so many years, now started cracking down on them so hard?

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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